The his­tory of home sewing

Our fe­male ancestors learned to sew from an early age, for, as Jayne Shrimp­ton ex­plains, un­til rel­a­tively re­cently sewing was an es­sen­tial skill and of­ten an oc­cu­pa­tion

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His­tor­i­cally, sewing was con­sid­ered to be an es­sen­tial fem­i­nine ac­com­plish­ment. Be­fore the ma­chine age, girls from all so­cial back­grounds learned to sew by hand from the age of five or six, typ­i­cally be­ing taught at home along­side other house­hold tasks. Many would even­tu­ally be able to cre­ate en­tire gar­ments and most would at least stitch their own white linen caps, aprons and shifts, baby clothes and men’s shirts and cra­vats, for sewing and em­bel­lish­ing ba­sic dress ar­ti­cles, in­clud­ing the fam­ily linen, was con­sid­ered a woman’s duty. For priv­i­leged ladies, needle­crafts re­mained largely a gen­teel pas­time: they could al­ways call on ser­vants for as­sis­tance or might use pro­fes­sional gar­ment-mak­ers. How­ever it was com­mon for or­di­nary women to make, al­ter and re­pair clothes for them­selves and their fam­i­lies, a nec­es­sary econ­omy in poorer house­holds in the days be­fore off-the-peg cloth­ing be­came widely avail­able in the shops: ad­di­tion­ally, for many work­ing women sewing of­ten pro­vided an in­come.

Some girls were des­tined to re­ceive for­mal dress­mak­ing train­ing, be­ing ap­pren­ticed at about 12 years old, for a num­ber of years: ap­pren­tice­ship terms var­ied and ar­range­ments might be in­for­mal if train­ing with a close as­so­ciate. In­struc­tion with a pro­fes­sional gar­ment-maker was oth­er­wise an ex­pen­sive op­tion: many young ap­pren­tices worked long hours for low or no pay, but at­tain­ing high stan­dards could se­cure a re­spectable po­si­tion and

a skilled dress­maker might even com­mence her own busi­ness.

From the early-1800s schools in­cluded needle­work in the cur­ricu­lum, and in Vic­to­rian Eng­land many dame schools, vil­lage schools, Sun­day schools and or­phan­ages taught sewing. As the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem ex­panded, do­mes­tic sub­jects be­came com­pul­sory for girls, to equip them for their fu­ture roles as wives and moth­ers and for jobs in do­mes­tic ser­vice, tai­lor­ing, dress­mak­ing or millinery – the only re­spectable fe­male oc­cu­pa­tions in most ar­eas of the coun­try. Sur­viv­ing school cloth ‘ac­count’ or sam­pler books dis­played their work, which in­cluded knit­ting, cro­chet, fine needle­work, plain stitch­ing and the gus­sets and gores that were used in gar­ment mak­ing.

Teach­ers were is­sued with prac­ti­cal in­struc­tion books like Needle­work and

Cut­ting Out (1884) by Kate Stan­ley, head governess and teacher of needle­work at White­lands Col­lege, Chelsea. As she ex­plained: “Within the last few years, needle­work has taken, and wisely taken, a much more prom­i­nent po­si­tion than it for­merly did in the ed­u­ca­tion code.” In ad­di­tion to the tech­niques ex­em­pli­fied in ‘ac­count’ books, girls learned to hem, sew and fell seams, sew on but­tons, at­tach tape strings, to gather and tuck fab­ric, and patch, darn and strengthen thin­ning ma­te­rial. Ba­sics mas­tered, they then pro­gressed to cut­tin­gout and mak­ing-up, learn­ing to fash­ion baby’s first shirt; a night­gown; a long white pet­ti­coat; a robe and pi­nafore for baby; a woman’s chemise ( blouse) and gored flan­nel pet­ti­coat.

Many Vic­to­rian so­ci­eties and char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions also en­cour­aged sewing. Cer­tain schemes were de­signed to help gen­tle­women in re­duced cir­cum­stances gain mod­est em­ploy­ment, while some ladies founded or re­vived home needle­work in­dus­tries for their es­tate ten­ants. In Ire­land, famine and un­em­ploy­ment prompted var­i­ous en­ter­prises, in­clud­ing the for­ma­tion of lo­cal needle­work schools. Os­ten­si­bly aimed at teach­ing oc­cu­pa­tional skills to the dis­ad­van­taged, sewing in­struc­tion also en­sured that work­ing-class fe­males re­mained in low-paid, sub­servient work con­sid­ered ap­pro­pri­ate to their so­cial sta­tion.

Sweated labour

Our fe­male fore­bears left school or home able to sew neatly and make ba­sic clothes, use­ful ac­com­plish­ments be­fore the ready­made cloth­ing in­dus­try ad­vanced. For­tu­nate girls might at­tain po­si­tions in tai­lor­ing or court dress­mak­ing es­tab­lish­ments, earn­ing a rea­son­able, if some­times un­pre­dictable, in­come, but the av­er­age work­ing-class wife and mother jug­gling work with do­mes­tic responsibilities un­der­took sewing at home as a seam­stress or piece-worker mak­ing or fin­ish­ing suits, blouses, shirts, dresses and nightwear. Seam­stresses op­er­ated ev­ery­where, work­ing for di­verse em­ploy­ers, but the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of fe­male home­work­ers oc­curred in ge­o­graph­i­cal ar­eas where men’s wages were low or where men’s jobs were mainly ca­sual or sea­sonal; also where there was no al­ter­na­tive em­ploy­ment for women.

Dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, Lon­don, Es­sex and Bris­tol devel­oped as ma­jor cen­tres for home­work­ing in the light cloth­ing in­dus­try. As con­sumer de­mand ex­panded, cer­tain goods be­came as­so­ci­ated with par­tic­u­lar lo­ca­tions: Leeds was best-known for woollen outer cloth­ing; rain­coat man­u­fac­ture was strong­est in and around Manch­ester; mis­cel­la­neous dress trades op­er­ated in the West Mid­lands, South Wales, Bris­tol and Not­ting­ham ar­eas; while Nor­wich, Colch­ester and other eastern dis­tricts fo­cused on trop­i­cal wear. Wars also af­fected the kinds of sewing piece-work avail­able: for ex­am­ple, thou­sands of fe­male home­work­ers served Colch­ester tai­lor­ing fac­to­ries re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing mil­i­tary uni­forms dur­ing the First World War.

Gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers, whole­salers and re­tail­ers re­lied on the home-based labour force, yet sewing was in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to un­paid do­mes­tic work and few em­ploy­ers paid a fair wage for the long hours of labour: for in­stance, the Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Sweat­ing, 1888, dis­cov­ered that an out­worker mak­ing a coat for a whole­sale firm earned just 7d or 8d; later, dur­ing the First World War a Colch­ester piece­worker re­ceived 2s 6d for mak­ing one dozen army

Gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers re­lied on the home-based labour force

shirts. Home­work­ers also had to pro­vide their own nee­dles and thread, heat­ing and light­ing and ar­range to re­turn the fin­ished goods: if com­pleted work was pro­nounced sub-stan­dard or de­liv­ered late, they in­curred a fine. Many strug­gled fi­nan­cially and of­ten worked in un­san­i­tary con­di­tions, for home work­ing en­vi­ron­ments were not cov­ered by the suc­ces­sive Fac­tory Acts. Whether sup­port­ing a fam­ily alone, or try­ing to sup­ple­ment the house­hold in­come, trag­i­cally many of our dress­mak­ing fore­bears were trapped by poverty and lack of op­por­tu­nity within the sys­tem of sweated labour.

Chang­ing tech­nol­ogy

Home sewing de­pended on avail­able re­sources and tech­nol­ogy. Well-fit­ting gar­ments re­quired a re­li­able tem­plate to fol­low when cut­ting out, and prior to the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion Ge­or­gian ladies mak­ing or com­mis­sion­ing new clothes of­ten copied an ex­ist­ing gar­ment. By the mid-1800s many in­struc­tion man­u­als and fash­ion-led pe­ri­od­i­cals were in cir­cu­la­tion, some, like Bee­tons’ The English­woman’s Do­mes­tic

Mag­a­zine, in­clud­ing rudi­men­tary pa­per gar­ment pat­terns. Dur­ing the later 19th cen­tury full-sized tis­sue pa­per pat­terns were mass-pro­duced by com­pa­nies like But­t­er­ick and McCall, and by 1900 both the fam­ily sewer and pro­fes­sional dress­maker were be­com­ing bet­ter equipped.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, me­chan­i­cal sewing was in­tro­duced. In­ven­tors had been ex­per­i­ment­ing for a cen­tury when Elias Howe patented the first prac­ti­cal sewing ma­chine in 1846. Isaac Singer fol­lowed in 1851 with a more ef­fi­cient ma­chine and, fol­low­ing fur­ther im­prove­ments, by 1856 a lightweight sewing ma­chine was de­signed for home use. Cloth­ing fac­to­ries even­tu­ally adopted ma­chin­ery on an in­dus­trial scale, but the tran­si­tion was slow. It still suited em­ploy­ers to use out­work­ers wher­ever there was a sup­ply of cheap labour and since ma­chines the­o­ret­i­cally speeded up the rate of piece-work, for cer­tain tasks at least, mech­a­ni­sa­tion did not re­place home­work­ers, but per­pet­u­ated the piece-work sys­tem.

Work­ers were of­ten ex­pected to pro­vide their own ma­chines but ini­tially sewing ma­chines were very ex­pen­sive and so some­times friends, rel­a­tives and neigh­bours clubbed to­gether, shar­ing a hand-crank or trea­dle ma­chine. Prices re­duced dur­ing the later 1800s and it be­came pos­si­ble to rent or buy a ma­chine. The first elec­tric sewing ma­chines were devel­oped in the 1920s and with pa­per pat­terns be­com­ing more user-friendly, cou­pled with easy-to-make cloth­ing styles, home dress­mak­ing re­mained pop­u­lar be­tween the wars, en­abling women to en­hance the qual­ity of their wardrobes.

‘Make-Do and Mend’

War erupted in Septem­ber 1939, and al­most im­me­di­ately ma­te­rial goods be­gan to grow scarce. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, some dress items dis­ap­peared com­pletely and most new cloth­ing pur­chases were ra­tioned from June 1941. The gov­ern­ment wanted to re­duce con­sumer de­mand so that all re­sources could be di­rected to­wards the war ef­fort and in 1942 the Board of Trade launched a ‘Make-Do and Mend’ cam­paign to en­cour­age civil­ians to “utilise ev­ery old gar­ment be­fore con­sid­er­ing any­thing

new”. As Hugh Dal­ton, the board’s pres­i­dent, ex­plained: “When you are tired of your old clothes, re­mem­ber that by mak­ing them do you are con­tribut­ing some part of an aero­plane, a gun or a tank.” A car­toon char­ac­ter, Mrs Sew and Sew, per­son­i­fied the scheme on posters and the press cir­cu­lated prac­ti­cal tips. ‘How-to’ pub­li­ca­tions ad­vised on the care of cloth­ing, news­pa­per fea­tures like the ‘Sew and Save’ ar­ti­cles in the Daily Mail ex­plain­ing ev­ery step of home dress­mak­ing and plan­ning a smart wartime wardrobe.

The con­cept of ‘make do and mend’ ap­pealed to the Bri­tish pub­lic’s keen sense of pa­tri­o­tism. Mil­lions of or­di­nary women could al­ready sew and were ac­cus­tomed to mak­ing clothes last, but priv­i­leged ladies strug­gling with­out do­mes­tic help were less fa­mil­iar with ba­sic tasks. The Women’s Vol­un­tary Ser­vice and Women’s In­sti­tute ran evening classes, while some women taught them­selves the fun­da­men­tals of home dress­mak­ing. How­ever, gar­ment-mak­ing was thwarted by fab­ric short­ages and women had to im­pro­vise. Coats were fash­ioned from blan­kets and dresses cre­ated from black­out ma­te­rial or old cur­tains; some women al­tered an ab­sent hus­band’s dress­ing gowns and over­coats to make them­selves coats and jack­ets. Parachute silk was used to make un­der­wear and wed­ding dresses and worn adults’ clothes were re-made into chil­dren’s gar­ments: re­source­ful dress­mak­ers used any avail­able scraps to cre­ate wear­able, if some­times un­usual, gar­ments in­clud­ing silk map-pat­terned blouses and dress­ing­gowns. Pa­tri­otic ma­te­ri­als were also pop­u­lar, such as the red, white and blue ‘Vic­tory’ print. In­deed, man­ag­ing the wardrobe and do­mes­tic sewing helped main­tain morale and a sense of nor­mal­ity dur­ing the war – ‘weapons’ rep­re­sent­ing in­ge­nu­ity, de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience.

Af­ter­wards ad­vanc­ing mass-pro­duc­tion and devel­op­ment of easy-care syn­thetic fab­rics fu­elled the ready-made cloth­ing mar­ket, al­though home dress­mak­ing re­mained a fea­ture of do­mes­tic life in many homes un­til the late-1970s/1980s. A gen­eral de­cline in dress­mak­ing in the late-20th cen­tury re­flected the trend for more women to go out to work with less time for tra­di­tional do­mes­tic tasks. Ad­di­tion­ally, the suc­cess of re­tail chains of­fer­ing stylish, qual­ity, af­ford­able clothes re­duced the need for long hours at the ma­chine. Needle­work in schools has also been re­duced in re­cent decades; yet a love of gar­ment-mak­ing and needle­work skills have been painstak­ingly passed on in some fam­i­lies, a pre­cious le­gacy link­ing the past with the present.

Jayne Shrimp­ton is a pro­fes­sional dress and tex­tile his­to­rian, au­thor and ex­pe­ri­enced por­trait spe­cial­ist

Who Do You Think You Are?

Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx El­derly women in Lon­don’s East End mak­ing stock­ings and mit­tens to sell

A dress­mak­ing class at Ham­mer­smith Trade School for girls c1911

A fash­ion plate to help dress­mak­ers and their cus­tomers choose de­signs

Mrs Sew-and-Sew in­spired women to make their cloth­ing last dur­ing WW2

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